Illustration by Prianka Jain
*Disclaimer: This article discusses specific instances of sleep paralysis experienced by some people. However, every experience of sleep paralysis is different and may require to be diagnosed and treated by a psychological or medical expert accordingly.Stories of supernatural possession have piqued my interest since I was very young. And then one night sometime around 2011, when I woke up to find myself unable to move, I was convinced that a paranormal force was at play. My legs were trembling and I felt as if a presence was pulling at them. It was a strange phenomenon that repeated itself 5-6 times through that night. My heart was pounding, and although I wanted to scream out for help, my vocal chords were as limited as my movements. I tried to shake it off as a bad nightmare the next day, but something about this experience felt different.
Several Google searches later, I concluded that the unwelcome squatter in my sleep cycle might have been sleep paralysis. It’s apparently the most common psychological justification for tales of spiritual possession and evil sightings when rudely awakened at 2 AM (shoutout to the Bent Neck Lady). Sleep paralysis is a sleep disorder in which your sleep phases dissociate and the mind awakens while the body does not. This leaves you in a limbo state where you’re conscious of your surroundings, but you can’t move. It leaves you vulnerable, with your mind playing tricks, sometimes built on long-held fears, experiences, unresolved traumas and issues, as well as anything impressionable you might have heard, read or watched.Sleep paralysis usually occurs when you’re about to enter the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep cycle or the dream phase, when your body 'locks' down to make sure you don’t physically ‘act’ out your dreams. And sometimes, the brain’s vigilance sets into motion to make you see things that aren’t actually there. Depending on the severity of the situation, the causes of sleep paralysis are multifold—erratic sleep patterns, genetic gifts, substance abuse (alcohol, weed and/or other drugs), and childhood traumas. It can even be a symptom of narcolepsy and/or other related mental health disorders.“Most of the cases I’ve treated [have been caused] by internal disturbances and conflicts, including a history of sexual abuse,” says clinical psychologist Dr Seema Hingorrany. According to her, when people suppress their emotions and don’t talk about their childhood trauma, the emotional impact manifests in the form of sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis may lie dormant and surface when you’re faced with a difficult situation. “I had a 26-year-old patient who realised she had this problem while undergoing a breakup. She was feeling jilted, rejected and abandoned, and these feelings manifested into sleep paralysis.”
Depending on the severity of the condition, sleep paralysis spells out different experiences, visions, and takeaways for different people. It's based on their personality, what they watch or read, and other situational factors. For 21-year-old marketing professional Ali Shah*, it showed up under the guise of astral projection, where he felt he was having an “out-of-body experience” and that his soul was “wandering about and watching his body sleep.” Having someone to cuddle while sleeping was his best solution. Hingorrany feels this particular case could be a cry for freedom, or a by-product of reading too much about sleep paralysis online, or simply an effect of regular drinking and smoking weed.Meanwhile, 27-year-old photographer Ankit Gupta’s experience has an existential flavour. “A couple of years ago, while sleeping, I felt as if someone hit me on the back of my head with a sharp object, and my head opened up from the back. I could feel pulsating pain through my body. I wanted to get a sense of what was happening, so I tried to move my hands to feel the magnitude of it, but I couldn’t.” The experience was different from the state of lucid dreaming because he had lost all sense of control. “I felt I had two options: Either I could die panicked, or calm down and die in peace. It was only when I focused on being calm that I realised it was just a dream.” Hingorrany speculates that such experiences could indicate emotional pain and an inability to express it.
Some, like 21-year-old financial analyst Rahul Kapoor*, see scary shadowy figures. Hingorrany posits that these may be an expression of an authoritative or dominant figure in one’s life. “I watched my door open and thought it was my mom, because there was this woman-like figure,” says Kapoor. “But in a flash, she was suddenly right next to my bed, standing over me as she turned on the lamp. Her face was fucking scary and I woke up from the fear and shock I felt.” After his mom denied having come to his room that night, Kapoor tried to shrug it off as a nightmare. He realised it was sleep paralysis after seeing a Google image of a man unable to move, with a demon sitting on his chest.In another instance, Tara Kapur from VICE India, opened up about her eerie experience of feeling like a little boy was watching herself lie paralysed in her sleep. She relates it to an article she read about an old man constantly being watched by the lurking presence of a little boy. Such visions of seeing small children are usually a projection of your own sense of helplessness, according to Hingorrany.
So what’s the solution? Easy ones include avoiding sleeping on your back, ensuring going to bed early, as well as seeking therapy. But, because most people who suffer from sleep paralysis either dismiss it as a bad dream or self-diagnose it after reading stuff online or talking about it with friends, they feel it’s something they can control and deal with by themselves. 29-year-old musician Shubhangi Joshi realised her sleep paralysis is a result of stress, fatigue and dehydration coupled with the experience of sleeping in new and unknown spaces while touring. She has learnt to control the feeling of growing panic after several episodes. She drinks water to hydrate once she is awake and doesn’t slip back into sleep for at least 15 minutes. “Your mind is like quicksand, and the calmer you are, the faster you will snap out of it,” she says.For former journalist Kapur, sleep paralysis led to a change in her professional life. “Around 2011-12, I went through a very bad bout and had a week where I slept only two hours a night. I kept compensating by drinking coffee and it became a vicious cycle. Newsroom environments warp your sleep patterns, and work stress also triggered sleep issues. Finally, I quit my job and took a break, and once I did that, it wasn’t so bad,” she says. Having learnt to structure her life better, she has combated the condition with exercise, making sure her phone is far away from her at night, and indulging in sleep-friendly activities like reading.As the experiences of sleep paralysis differ from person to person, so do the solutions. Shah has learnt to alternate his breathing patterns to wake up, and others like Kapoor acknowledge that they haven’t experienced any bouts of sleep paralysis ever since they started smoking weed. While weed is commonly used as a coping mechanism for anxiety-related issues, Hingorrany feels that using it to treat sleep paralysis creates a dependence that can later lead to an increased intensity of the very condition they’re trying to combat.Ultimately, sleep paralysis is a murky affair of the mind, where what you see is what you believe. It’s probably a reminder to confront the demons you’ve been ignoring—an old school solution that can bring you the relief you’re looking for.Follow Shamani Joshi on Twitter.